"Wars not make one great": redeeming the Star Wars mythos from redemptive violence without amusing ourselves to death.

Author:McDowell, John C.
Position:Essay
 
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"You May Fire When Ready" [Grand Moff Tarkin, ANH]: A Violent Mythos

[1] All human artefacts are culturally and contextually produced. Mythologies, for instance, express, through their judicious symbolic depiction of "archetypal" forms of living, the cultural (Latin, cultura) conditions that mark their location or setting. However, they also possess a certain transcendental quality which enables them to recultivate or transfigure, either subtly or radically, perspectives of their cultural instantiation by offering imaginative alternatives which themselves can become effective through their ritualistic telling and retelling. What these claims do is argue that mythological stories can provide powerful unconscious forces for the motivation and justification of the collective behaviour of those various cultures in which they are told and retold as being existentially meaningful narratives. (2) Put another way, they are formed within webs of significance that determine what we learn to value. Thereby, through their mediations, these ritualised story-telling performances significantly contribute to "socialising" us. It is precisely "because culture matters so much," Ben Agger claims, that "it deserves full critical attention." (3) Speaking specifically of the hegemonic role of the cinema, a particular form of the power of cultural production, Miles and Plate argue that

In just over one hundred years, film has become a powerful force in modern life that changes the way we think about, interpret, and live in the world. Because of this alteration of the ways we literally see the world, critical attention to film becomes a vital task for those engaged with issues of religion and ethics, and concerned with more equitable social arrangements. (4)

[2] Yet, because this process occurs more often than not in largely unseen ways, the emotive matter of the relation between screen violence and social crime, for instance, can only at best be superficially dealt with through reflection on whether there is a direct influence of fictional violence on, a conscious appropriation or repetitious simulation of, actual violence. (5) Given the way mythologies help shape cultural dispositions, identity and discourse, the values and dispositions portrayed in the violent piece become "internalised" and "naturalised" in the cultural unconscious. These values are assumed to be the way things are, and are, in Rene Girard's term, "learned" through the mimesis of imaginative repetition (and the sheer amount of screen violence suggests that the repetition has made us familiar, all too familiar, with these assumptions). (6) This entails that "the power of the media," if we can even speak meaningfully of that in a culturally porous set of interpenetrating cultures, in the undoubtedly complex process of the social construction of reality lies more fully at the level of the unconscious. It can provide resources for the forming of discourse and of persons and persons' imaginations, for the construction of identity and understanding. (7)

[3] A question frequently raised over the mythology offered by the six-volume Star Wars saga, a pop myth of monstrous popularity, crucially has to do with matters of (macho) militarism and systemic violence. Certain critics particularly identify in it the so-called "myth of redemptive violence." This is what Walter Wink rather grandly identifies as "the real religion of America," or the culture of death and violence that Grace Jantzen even more grandly claims lies at the heart of Western philosophy. (8) Critics feel they do not have to work terribly hard to expose this supposedly American myth in the saga. So, for instance, Bryan Stone argues that "The ultimate victory of good over evil finally boils down to firing laser-blasters, detonating bombs, or slicing through one's enemies with a light saber." (9) Despite the Jedi Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi counselling Luke Skywalker not to succumb to the Dark Side of "anger, fear ... aggression ... hate," the question is whether the films on the whole serve to justify violence, or at least a certain kind of violence--the redemptive violence of the Rebels' and Jedis' causes. (10) Does the Star Wars saga tap into and reinforce (in both either consciously or unconsciously) the violent American fascination with, and celebration of, the hero who overcomes all odds to dispense true justice himself, what Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence call "the Captain America complex"? (11) Simply, as "space opera" Star Wars, to use the words of one commentator on the genre, "is a literature of conflicts, usually with violent resolutions." (12)

[4] Underlying this paper is the sense that Star Wars, a supposed example of morality diverting popcorn culture with wide sphere of influence, possesses resources to be read as a multi-volume set of publicly ethical texts. (13) The main feature driving the study has to do with the issue of the relation between this saga and violence. The contention is that violence takes several forms in these movies, and these range from something akin to a "holy violence," through a sense of "just war," to an ethical philosophy approaching a full-blown redemptive "non-violence." Certainly it is true that Star Wars is a polymorphic set of visual texts that generates multiple interpretations. Yet, there may well be in the performance of the theme of "the redemptive" vital potential for subverting the so-called "myth of redemptive violence," or the talk of "a good war," itself, (14) and for the presentation of differentiations in the acts of violence that open up to questions of otherness, difference and good relations beyond violence. Thus, when discouraging hasty and ill-informed readings of it as mythologising violence and violent aesthetic voyeurism, the saga can perhaps surprisingly invite the reimagination and recultivation of the moral vision for the flourishing of responsible agency. (15) Even if that somewhat grand claim remains unconvincing to readers in the end, the paper suggests at the very least that one must recognise that matters are not as simple as most readings of Star Wars as a violent set of texts would assume.

[5] There is something else that needs to be stated in advance of launching into the detailed argument, and this has been developed more substantially in The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force. The saga is, of course, two sets of trilogies, and these are separated by well over a decade. There are differences in context, style, mood, and so on. Where I perceive these to be important they will be indicated. Yet the paper equally advocates that better attention needs to be paid by cultural scholarship of the saga to the differences and continuities than has generally been the case. (16)

"So this is how liberty dies--with thunderous applause" (Padme, ROTS): The Will to Specular Violence

[6] Martin Luther King's sermonic meditation on the words of the Jesus dying on the cross--"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"00understands them to be the expression of someone refusing to retributively respond to violence with vengeance. But there is more to Jesus" prayer than that--the reference is to the self-deception of his executors for "they know not what they do." The Fourth Gospel's ironic use of the ecce homo, for instance, holds up a mirror to the agency of the authorities, driven as they are by the dream of the sovereign kingdom of Rome or a god that cannot recognise the presence of Jesus as the proclaimer of the true Kingdom, the basileia (rule) of God. King's reflections lead him to claim that "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." (17) While this may appeal to the typically modern Western reduction of the ethical to the limit- or extreme-situation, the point is that these moments of discord are more revealing of who we are and the values that determine us than the relatively "quieter" moments. In other words, it is important to attend to the structuring dynamics of human consciousness and agency, to the cultivating of instincts that form and direct decision-making at its deepest level.

[7] John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett attempt to do just this at a very particular point when developing their own version of Joseph Campbell's claim about an identifiable American "monomyth," the story that sustains as well as best illuminates and expresses the cardinal values shared by many Americans. (18) Their two studies attempt to penetrate below shallow crisis-ethics which ask questions about decision-making without paying attention to the types of things that influence the formation of moral judgment. Rather than focus on high-cultural expressions or politicians' explicit claims, this scholarly pair tackles the matrix of popular-culture-as-identity-cultivating, or in Tom Beaudoin's terms that cultural discourse which is the primary medium through which younger Americans tend to develop their self-consciousness. Therein they trace the monomyth through numerous pop cultural moments. (19) They claim that the prevalence of this monomyth as they perceive it generates an ideological structure of violence, responsive vengeance, and so on, webs of significance themselves spinning the process of learning ideologies of death and violence. As Nicholas Jackson O'shaughnessy claims in his study of propaganda,

We have no inherited predisposition to kill. We do it because we have been persuaded to, because our deepest emotions have been colonised by something else. The murderers going about their work in Kosovo were not monsters but normal men. Yet their barbarism is incomprehensible unless it is placed in the context that explains it, years of saturation propaganda at once sentimental, self-pitying, vindictive and xenophobic. (20) [8] In Lawrence and Jewett's identification and critique of the...

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